Battle Creek

Childcare centers in Calhoun County step up to watch children of essential workers during pandemic

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

When essential workers have children it is essential that those children have the care they need so parents can focus on their jobs. 

While some employees continue to get their jobs done from home during state-mandated “stay at home” orders, there are those, such as nurses, law enforcement professionals, and some employees at businesses in Fort Custer Industrial Park, who do not have that opportunity. They were deemed “essential” workers because their work is needed to keep people healthy or otherwise provide what the state calls critical infrastructure. 

In addition to putting themselves at risk to do their jobs, those with children were also faced with finding childcare. This is when five different childcare centers, a mix of for-profit and nonprofit, in Calhoun County stepped in to offer their services to care for the children of essential workers.

Among the first centers to begin taking in these children was Lemon Tree Preschool operated by the Battle Creek Family YMCA. Jill Hinde, CEO of the city’s YMCA, says when Lemon Tree Preschool was facing closure, she and her staff were looking for ways that they could be helpful to the community. 

“We identified childcare needs for the children of first responders and essential workers and that fit within the Y’s mission of youth development,” Hinde says. “We were just looking for ways to help the community.”

On March 17 they opened an Emergency Relief Camp that has been caring for 40 children in kindergarten through fifth grade and some toddlers. The camp provides meals and a range of activities to keep children engaged.

Normally, Hinde says there would be 40 children ages 3 to 5 in Lemon Tree and a Great Start Readiness Program. She says the Y also operates a child watch program for members with children ages 6-weeks to 12-years-old. With the exception of the Emergency Relief Camp, the Y building has been closed in compliance with the governor's orders. 

Hinde says she’s been able to redeploy employees to work at the camp which is open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and is adhering to strict medical protocols (like taking temperatures) and CDC guidelines to keep children and staff safe. 

A combination of tuition and scholarships is covering some, but not all of the costs associated with operating the camp. Hinde says the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the Y in terms of a loss in membership revenue, but she says the opportunity to provide care to the children of essential workers has “opened up an avenue to do mission-driven work” funded through different sources.

Hinde says the care provided at the Emergency Relief Camp is currently outweighing unknown factors such as when the YMCA and Lemon Tree will be able to reopen.

“The Emergency Relief Camp lifts a burden for people who are working tirelessly to help all of us,” she says. “It’s given the Y a way to really pivot and help the community and provide a vital service in a time of so much uncertainty.”

Kim Wolfersberger, Owner and Director of the Learning Zone on Capital Avenue, expresses similar sentiments.
Emergency Relief Camp at the Battle Creek Family YMCA helps essential workers with childcare needs.

“We said from the very beginning that we would always be here for our families,” Wolfersberger says. “There was no doubt in our mind that we would not be closing unless we had to.”

Under normal circumstances, the Learning Zone’s 28-person staff was caring for about 140 children ranging in age from three months to 12-years-old. Now operating within the COVID-19 related state guidelines, they have 40 children enrolled who are being cared for by a staff of 13.

This represents a 75 percent decrease in the number of families who have children there. Wolfersberger says there are 100 families who normally would send their children to the Learning Zone who were not considered essential workers. Now many of them are working from home and juggling the roles of parent, employee, and homeschool teacher.

Families with children at the Learning Zone are paying tuition, but with fewer families enrolled that isn’t enough to cover payroll. Wolfersberger says she and her husband, who works with her, are using their personal savings to make up what tuition isn’t covering. A partnership with the Calhoun County Intermediate School District is helping to defray the cost of supplies.

“There’s a huge financial impact,” Wolfersberger says. “We’re definitely going negative each month and each week to pay all of our staff who come into the office every day.”

On Friday, April 24, she learned that her center would receive funding from the Federal government’s Payroll Protection Program which, she says won’t cover everything, but will definitely help. 

Those employees who were laid off are likely receiving unemployment and Wolfersberger says she’s confident that they will return to work once the state guidelines are relaxed. In addition to providing numerous on-site learning opportunities, the Learning Zone provides scholarships ranging from $800 to $3,000 for their staff to attend classes at Kellogg Community College or Western Michigan University.

Wolfersberger says before the shutdown, nine of her employees were receiving these scholarships. She says this is something that will ultimately benefit the community.

“If we can make teachers better, we can provide better care for the kids,” Wolfersberger says. “We need more early childhood educators.”

Infants practice rock painting at Learning Zone.

Once the "stay at home orders" are lifted, Wolfersberger says she will call all of her employees back to work and anticipates it being business as usual. She anticipates the majority of her families and their children will be coming back. She says that in addition a summer program is already up and runnings, she will be offering accelerated curriculums so that children will be better prepared academically to go back to school this Fall.

For the time being, Wolfersberger says she and her staff are remaining vigilant and making sure their physical and mental health of themselves and that of the children in their care is being monitored.

“We are basically our own little world out here,” she says. “We’ve always been here for our community and we know the community will be there for us.”

Staying Ahead of the Deficit Curve

Within a matter of days, the Battle Creek Christian Early Learning Center went from and an enrollment of 300 and caring daily for 200 children, who range in age from infants up to 12-years-old, to 50 children of essential workers.

This loss of revenue could have been devastating were it not for the foresight of the center’s leadership which established a plan prior to the onset of the coronavirus to build up a three-month reserve of savings and families who are continuing to pay all or a portion of their regular tuition even though their children aren’t currently attending the childcare center.

“It’s really hard to save money in this business, but we have some board members who really pushed for it. Before this pandemic hit we were doing better financially,” says Erin Lane, director of Battle Creek Christian Early Learning Center. “The last fiscal year was not that great. What we have saved has helped.”

There were quite a few families with parents whose jobs would have been deemed essential, but many of them made other arrangements such as childcare by a spouse working from home who could care for their children, Lane says. 

“The number actually would have been higher if we continued to provide care for all of those deemed essential,” says Lane says, who added that five of the children they are now caring for were previously in other childcare situations.

The loss of anticipated revenue has “definitely impacted us financially, however, we’ve made a lot of decisions to try to put us in a financially stable place,” Lane says.

“We gave families a few options when the Executive Order was put in place. Families of children not attending could continue to pay their regular weekly tuition to build up a reserve that they could use when they return.”

Other options included paying a reduced tuition rate between $25 and $50 per week, the amount of which is dependent on whether their children attend full or part-time, or pulling their kids from the center.

Lane says about 10 percent of families decided to pull their children. She says each time the state-mandated orders changed, they have added children to their future enrollment.

The combination of savings and ongoing tuition payments has helped the center with its cash flow and enabled it to operate as it normally would with added health and safety guidelines being maintained and followed. The center also was able to get financial assistance through the Federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program which enabled them to continue to pay their staff of 48, even though only 24 are currently going in to work.

The PPP funds began on March 31 and will end on May 24. Lane says she anticipates recalling some employees on May 4 as parents begin to go back to work.

Cost of staying open versus the needs of parents

When it became clear that the state-mandated closures would impact childcare centers throughout the area, Nicole Chervenak, Director of the Lakeview Child Development Center, says she knew her facility had the teachers and staff necessary to provide care to children of essential workers.

“We had parents right away who reached out to say, ‘We need you.’ It would have been devastating for them for us to close,” Chervenak says.

The Child Development Center, is one of seven in the Battle Creek/Kalamazoo area owned by the Foundation for Behavioral Resources, headquartered in Augusta. In addition to the Lakeview Child Development Center, the Borgess Child Development Center, located at Borgess Medical Center also remains open. 

Normally, the Lakeview CDC’s staff of 20 cares for an average of 55 children two-weeks-old to 12-years-old. That number can go up to as many as 75 children who come in for after-school care.

Since the Child Development Center began caring for the children of essential workers, it has been averaging between 10 and 12 children per day, some of whom have come from other Child Development Centers that are temporarily closed. These children are being cared for by a reduced staff of five.

Chervenak says she’s hopeful that staff who were laid off will come back, but she says she knows that some may find other jobs or continue to draw on unemployment. She says she has been communicating with those who are laid off.

Despite a reduction in staff to keep operating costs down, Chervenak says the decision to keep her CDC open will be a financial hardship in the long run.

“Normally, on a day-to-day basis our tuition is what keeps our centers open,” she says.

The Child Development Center continues to receive funds from the Department of Health and Human Services for the children of families who qualify and also is receiving funding for one teacher through the Great Start Readiness Program. The Foundation for Behavioral Resources, which owns the center, also is helping financially, Chervenak says.

“The Foundation will pick up the costs in the long run and we’re still charging regular tuition for the children here. For the children not currently with us, families paid half of their tuition as a holding fee, but they won’t pay anything more until they come back,” she says.

“We’re hoping that we’ll bounce back and the Foundation will cover the costs of staying open through this pandemic. I’m thrilled we were able to stay open, these families depend on us.”

This was also the deciding factor for the leadership of Kids Time Childcare in Athens, says Lindsey Smith, Kids Time co-director, and lead teacher for its Great Start Readiness Program.

“Our three-person administrative team decided that because we’re the only childcare provider in the area, we needed to continue to provide services for the community and the families we serve,” Smith says. “We have the children of nurses, factory workers who are making essential products and parts, shift workers, and employees who are beginning to be called back to work.

“We’re getting a little bit more of an influx as things are coming back.”

This influx will enable the center to bring back its staff of 20 full-time and part-time employees. The staff was reduced to eight while the childcare center focused on caring for the children of essential workers.

Smith says those families who had the means to continue to support the Kids Time financially have done so. She says funding also is coming from the Great Start Readiness Program and Department of Health and Human Services, in addition to members of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi which have children there.

“We have had a really great outpouring of support from families,” she says. “The support has been crazy, but they trust us and want us to be able to provide care. Families have had to make difficult decisions, especially if there were delays in receiving unemployment benefits. If they had to drop we absolutely know that we want to be able to support them with the first slots that open.”

Despite the willingness of families to step-up financially, Smith says keeping her center open has not been without some financial hardships.

“We are doing as well as can be expected. Our mission is always the same – we want to provide quality services to our community. Want families to know that we’re here for them and we want to make life as normal as possible for the kids.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
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